Laura Von Rosk: Up, Over, Down, and Through

An Introduction by Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Somehow, my mind leaps to the poetry of Louise Glück when I see the paintings of Laura Von Rosk: small, otherworldly landscapes (usually eight to 14 inches, most often square) that are increasingly humorous, other times lonely, even erotic in their sensuousness. Skilled in harnessing her own emotions, her personal myths and metaphors, she manipulates her materials with equal skill — and hence, her audience, much to our delight. She insists that the artist goes where the painting takes her. And so it is with the viewer. I sat down with Laura to talk about somewhat recent changes in her use of medium and the reverberations. (Thus, a variety of early and recent works in this portfolio, in reverse chronological order.)


An Artist Statement by Laura Von Rosk

These small-scale paintings stem from my love of miniaturization, illusion of space, and observation of natural phenomena. They are constructed by mixing elements of landscape and natural forms with memory and imagination. Forms are repeated, emphasized, and manipulated to create tension between the imagined and the real world. Through metaphor, expressive shape, color, and light, I hope to create images that give visual form to physical forces, as well as psychological states of mind, through an expansive landscape in a small format.



An Interview with the Artist

MKJ: I’ve chosen to include a variety of your paintings in this introduction to your work, dating from recent to early. I’ve been following your work for a long time and noticed a change somewhat recently. Could you speak briefly about your painting process? Your surfaces, especially in your early works, were always very layered (in oils?), highly luminous and varnished. This, of course is hard to capture in photographic reproductions, but stunning when viewing the works personally, lending itself to a mythic, magical quality.

LVR: Early on, in grad school, my painting surfaces were a thick buildup of paint, almost impasto. I loved the potential for expressiveness through that rich, meaty texture. Eventually I developed a way of working that was almost opposite to that — the painting surface was built up from many thin layers of oil paint mixed with linseed oil and varnishes, not unlike the glazing techniques of Northern European Renaissance painters. Light filters through these many smooth, translucent layers, creating a particular shiny and luminous effect. My recent paintings, over the last two years or so, are not layered this way. Perhaps I’m circling back, moving away from the smooth glossy surface. I am fascinated by the physicality of paint. It amazes me how versatile this one medium, oil paint, can be employed in such a variety of ways, creating an endless range of effects.  

MKJ: Has this change in the use of your medium freed you in other ways, such as enabling you to spend considerably less time on one piece?   

LVR: Yes and no. It seems there is no rule, with me, on how long it will take for a painting to feel finished. About four years ago I had a certain experience of feeling very stuck on one particular painting. After working on it over the course of a year, it never seemed to change much, which was extremely frustrating. I felt it was keeping me from making other paintings. My solution was to trip myself up – tweak my practice in a way to force me to work differently. While at a residency at Yaddo, with much more uninterrupted time, I decided to start and finish one painting daily. Although starting was usually easy, and the “finishing” part was difficult, adapting this parameter from the get-go (i.e., that you only have so many hours to work on the panel) made all the difference. For a while it was like a spell was broken — I finished that darn painting and was able to start many others thereafter. The scale of the work remains small, or smaller, with most being 8 x 8 inches. They do take longer than a day to make, but typically not months. It’s the difference between refining and fussing, and I’m aiming for the former.

MKJ: Your artist’s residencies seem to have been very fruitful for you in terms of creative breakthroughs, challenging you in quite productive ways, true? Could you talk about this?

LVR: The gift of a residency is continuous time, without daily interruptions, whether two weeks or a month, that allows one to proceed, to process, and distill work, or make room for a change. This is huge. Reserved time for making paintings is a luxury, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy work. Time is needed to produce work that is meaningful and relevant.

MKJ: While your choice in how you use your medium may have shifted, clearly your interests have not. The natural world seems to take front & center in your work. A viewer could assume that your landscape paintings are about places you have lived or visited. Are they of real or imagined scenes?

LVR: I love this question! They are both. Sometimes these paintings stem from a very specific place, a personal visual memory, but they could also be my response and appreciation of works from other artists I admire, across cultures and time. A painting could start one way, inspired or grounded in a specific place, but over time develop into something else, transformed into another place, something I wasn’t planning on, but in the end, a place I want to be. Often, they seem to come from a completely made-up place or space, constructed only to serve particular formal concerns in an image that feels like something I want to linger over, spend time with.

That’s a bit about the magic of attempting creative work: you don’t always know where you are heading... which, unlike other fields of study, can work in your favor.

MKJ: Surely you are aware that others see the human body imbued in your landscape paintings. The question is – how aware are you of instilling this organic projection onto the work from its inception? Do you choose a subject based on this possibility and then amplify it intentionally? 

LVR: Now that I’ve had a painting practice for 30 + years, it may be that I do choose a subject based on similarities to the human form. When I was younger, I was often surprised – like, “Oh, I did it again!” But I’m not surprised when it happens now.

It doesn’t feel like the impetus for creating an image. I think just as often, I will twist forms to conform to what feels right, and often that will create something that ends up resembling the human form.

The human body typically appears symmetrical, but rarely do we see an image of a natural landscape that is symmetrical. I think this is what allows some of these images to serve as metaphors. They can feel like something familiar.

MKJ: How has the pandemic affected your studio practice? Where do you see your work moving in the immediate future? 

LVR: I used to have the radio on all the time in the studio, but now I listen less, at least to news programs. I think it is important to pay attention to current affairs in the news, but I’m trying to reserve that time outside my studio time. There are such loud toxic voices competing for attention. I’ve found it is much more productive to listen to podcasts about art, science, history or music.

I continued to work on a small scale, but even smaller over the last two years. To me, there is something comforting about the 8 x 8-inch panel size. It feels intimate. I haven’t been in the mood to make anything much larger, or anything that took up too much space. Instead, I want to create something that would quietly draw you in.

I never felt like I had to paint something specific about the pandemic, but I’ve had a couple of painting experiences come about that seem related, indirectly. One example was contemplating the word “spread,” or “spreading.” It’s a word, thought, action that we continue to hear in relation to Covid-19. It was/is something we think about every time we are around others. I created a small painting specifically about the simple concept of something spreading. It resulted in an image of an unfamiliar tree-like form with entwined branches and roots floating in a body of water. I don’t think it is necessary to know this about the painting.

Another example came in the last couple of months. Winter arrived, with the Covid Omicron variant. In response, I started two large paintings based on sketches from our summer garden (note: a larger painting for me is 2 x 2 ½ feet!). It seemed reactionary, against cold weather and illness. Almost like saying – “Oh yeah?  Here, take this: Sunflowers and zinnias!”